How I Almost Invented Roleplaying

How I Almost Invented Roleplaying

When I was a kid, I loved war movies – even more than cowboy movies. I can remember, at the age of 6, pretending to kill “nazis” with my friends. I also remember, after playtime, going to my dad and asking him what “nazis” were. I thought they were some kind of alien or a nasty animal of some kind. Since I was just a kid, he gave me an abbreviated answer. I was amazed to learn that nazis were actually people.

I also knew that many Japanese were bad guys in the Second World War. But I adored my Uncle Mike (Mitsuru) Takeda and Aunt Lillian, both full-blooded Japanese. Our house was full of little Japanese knick-knacks thanks to them. They even taught me origami.

This didn’t stop me from playing battle games with my friends. Usually our guns were just sticks, and we’d take turns getting “killed” in action. Those were pretty active games. Sometimes we’d play with plastic army men instead, and that was also extremely fun.

In my early teens I learned of the existence of tabletop wargames, which used miniatures. 13 year old me couldn’t possibly afford metal figures and anyway the local wargaming group was into Napoleonics which I knew zero about. But I could use my allowance to buy Airfix figures, and then my friends and I created rules to play with them.

Airfix Australian WW2

By the age of 16 we were regularly playing tabletop wargames with our little Airfix figures, with actual rules. We even had terrain of sorts – we used wooden Risk cubes to lay out the edges of rivers, books for hills, and so forth. Eventually my friend Bill decreed that one of the units on each side should represent us, personally. So I had a Lieutenant Petersen figure, who’d walk around and try to survive the battle so he could be promoted.

Well eventually we stopped playing with the Airfix figures and started playing lots of Avalon Hill games, which used cardboard counters. We still created our own games, but we used our own cardboard counters for these, and we no longer had a single person who represented “me”.

Pleading sickness, I stayed home from school to play this when it arrived. In 1974, I found out about Dungeons & Dragons, and started playing that, too. Eventually I developed my own roleplaying games, then continued to design games clear up to now, completing the process I guess I’d started when shooting “nazis” as a 6 year old kid.

But it turns out that the way that roleplaying games first evolved was in tabletop miniature wargames. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson decided to label certain officers as themselves in their wargaming group. JUST LIKE BILL AND ME! They then started playing medieval wargames instead of napoleonics, then added fantasy creatures, then started letting their heroes upgrade between battles (again, we were doing this too). And in the end created fantasy roleplaying games with Dungeons & Dragons.

I owned two entire copies of this. Lost to mildew when mom stored them in a damp basement. I was on the exact same track, at least for a while. I wonder how many other people in the late 60s, early 70s were also orbiting Gygax & Arneson’s great idea. Now, I’m not saying that I would have eventually invented roleplaying on my own. Who knows? But I had at least embarked on the same road as Gygax/Arneson, without knowing it, Of course I was also just a feckless teenager, with zero ability to bring my ideas to the marketplace, or even an inkling how this could be done.

But now you know this tale, and I hope you find it interesting.

– Sandy P.

Cthulhu Wars Duel

Cthulhu Wars Duel

Back in 2013 when I first launched the campaign for Cthulhu Wars, the single most-heard comments were “why is it so big?” “why not use cheap meeples?” “why can’t I play it 2 player?” “can you make a travel version?” I had just done my absolute dream game. It was so popular and had such strong reviews that naturally those who couldn’t afford the price tag wanted me to do a less expensive version. I resisted – in my opinion, one important reason Cthulhu Wars was such a success was BECAUSE of its size and impact, not in spite of it.

The two-player fans were easier to ignore; Cthulhu Wars is emphatically a multiplayer game, and its interactions are seriously distorted in two player mode. We tried it several times, but it lacked the “mouth feel” of Cthulhu Wars, and left us cold. “Combat” factions, such as Cthulhu, dominated “Infrastructure” factions, such as Black Goat.

So we moved on and basically forgot about it. Then came 2018. In our Planet Apocalypse campaign we’d included a “super-pledge” which we internally called the Masterminds. Those who backed it got to come to my house for a weekend; play unpublished games, hang out, get design practicums, and so forth. Well in September the Masterminds showed up. We had 5 superfans on hand, all of whom loved my games, and so I decided to use them for my own dark purposes.

No, I didn’t sacrifice them to Yog-Sothoth – I sat them down with my assistant game designer, Lincoln P., and we forced them to work on a two-player version of Cthulhu Wars hot and heavy. It’s not all they did – we had plenty of other frolics going on – but it had the most lasting result. uring the course of the weekend, and lots of plays, we worked out what was needed. A few rules changes ensured that the game was still fun but was absolutely balanced.

The Decay Marker

One of the major strategic elements of Cthulhu Wars is to try to run out of Power last, so you get the last few turns without interruption. In multiplayer, this was a fine aspect to the game – usually the end player didn’t have too many turns in a row, and if he did, he would “spread the love” among all his enemies. But in a two player game, this game element was problematic. With only one target, even just 3-4 turns in a row could nearly destroy a victim and ruin the game.

To fix this problem, we added the Decay marker to the game – now if you run out of Power first, the other player has to pay an ever-rising “Power Tax” each time he takes an extra turn. This has two effects. First, it means he does not want to draw out the turn – paying the Power Tax multiple times is painful. Second, it means players feel rewarded for going out first – the complete opposite of the ­“real” Cthulhu Wars experience. It’s different, but it’s super fun.

Doom Kill

Also, in Cthulhu Wars you are not directly rewarded for combat. I mean it’s its own reward to an extent – by battling you can move an enemy out of a desirable area, eliminate cultists, and many factions require combat to achieve spellbooks. The main controlling limiter to combat is that both players get units lost and/or scattered, which means in a multiplayer game, if you fight too much a third party will take advantage of your weakness. Nobody’s got time for that. But in a two player game, this weakness vanishes – which is why Cthulhu was so dominant against Black Goat in our original 2 player games. Sure Cthulhu still loses units when he fights, but he’s never “weak” with respect to the enemy because he generally inflicts more losses than he takes. Combat is win-win for Cthulhu and other combat factions such as Windwalker. But we didn’t want all of the 2 player games to be combat-heavy matchups. We wanted ALL the factions to be fun. And a faction that inflicts its damage by capturing (Sleeper) or nuking units from a distance (Black Goat, Opener) was just plain disadvantaged.

So we added a new rule –for every kill you inflict on an enemy, you earn Doom! Suddenly you are scoring points directly every time you use one of those weird special abilities. Cthulhu is still a battle titan – but now Black Goat’s Ghroth spellbook, formerly obscure and little-used, becomes a devastating source of victory points. When Sleeper goes on a capturing rampage, instead of just earning Power, he also is gathering Doom, so even the least-battle-oriented civ suddenly becomes interesting.

To balance this bigger Doom bonanza we changed the Doom phase such that you don’t get Doom simply for controlling Gates. You must not only control a gate but also perform a Ritual of Annihilation.

Collect Them All?

In Cthulhu Wars you can’t win the game unless you have 6 Spellbooks. This was awkward in the 2 player game, because a lot of the Spellbooks require actions from the other players. In a multiplayer game it’s not an issue, because someone always fuilfills the task. But in two player this is not the case. Take Windwalker for instance –one of his spellbook requirements is “another player has 6 spellbooks”. Well if his opponent is a dog in the manger, he could refuse to take his last spellbook, thus preventing Windwalker from ever winning. That sucked.

Our solution was quite simple – we removed the 6 spellbook rule. Now you didn’t HAVE to get all the Spellbooks to win.  This had the unexpected side effect of making Spellbooks easier to get – now that you couldn’t actually keep your enemy from winning by holding out, players were actually much likelier to take actions that might score you a book, because it was no longer such a constraint. So the game became more fun AND more balanced.

Creating Cthulhu Wars Duel

We trimmed a bunch of other tidbits, made sure that all spellbooks made sense in two player, etc. In the end we had a good two player game. But it wasn’t exactly Cthulhu Wars. We had these niggly rules that weren’t in the base game (Decay, Doom for Kills, etc.) that players had to remember. It felt … clumsy.

So last year I was pondering whither the two player version of Doom and it came to me like a thunderbolt. THIS could be the “smaller” Cthulhu Wars so many people desired! With a new rulebook incorporating all the old 2 player changes it would now be a game in its own right. Not a competitor or replacement to the “old” Cthulhu Wars, but a peer, to stand alongside.

How to do it? Well first off, I decided it wouldn’t have ANY figures – this was to be an inexpensive, easily-transportable version of the game. But I still liked the panoply of the big figures, so we went for cardboard standees. This way we had big, full-color units, but not hard to transport or print.

Next, we made the board smaller. Now that we were using standees instead of 3-d figures with bases as wide as 100mm across, it was plausible. In doing this I went ahead and created a wholly new map for the game, too. Well I say “wholly new” but really it’s a simple variation on the tried-and-true Earth map.

Third we only needed two factions – it’s a two player game after all. Cthulhu and Black Goat were now super-fun to play against each other, and felt utterly different, so they made the cut.

What next?

We only did two factions so far, so our current plan is to release the other factions in new boxes – each its own complete, fully-playable, affordable game with its own unique map. Of course though the factions and maps will come in different boxes you can mix and match them as you please. But only two players at a time!

It’s gone full circle in a sense. Some fans have asked for a multiplayer version, or even about having figures. But the way I see it, I’ve already designed that game. 

Sandy Designer Corner – Invasion of the Brood

Sandy Designer Corner – Invasion of the Brood

When I was 13 years old, I invented an alien race to rule the star empire I pretended to control in my fun pretend games with my pals. All my friends invented alien nations too. Mine were the broodmasters – hideous black hulks without any sensory organs except telepathy. They spawn small arachnid-like broodlings from their bodies to act as workers, soldiers, and everything else. While the broodmaster itself hid in an underground burrow or a fortress, the broodlings swarmed over the landscape building a civilization, all under direct control of their ruling broodmaster’s immense mind. Over the years I kept refining these aliens until I understood almost all the details of their grim society, rapacious personalities, and strange biology. Then I turned 16, found out about girls, and that was that for the broodmasters.

In 1991, I designed the games Lightspeed and Hyperspeed for MicroProse Software, and I needed a bunch of aliens. Naturally, with the Broodmasters already pre-designed so to speak, I put them into this game series:

In 2018, I designed the tabletop game Hyperspace, and once again I needed a bunch of alien civilizations. Naturally, I pulled the broodmasters out of my back pocket. Again. And this time I made them a key feature of the game – one of the four core civilizations. In February 2019 we crowdfunded Hyperspace to reasonable success. Presumably they wouldn’t show up again. I mean, why would they?

But in March 2019, I had an extremely detailed dream. In this dream, I was designing a game in which a broodmaster was attacking the modern Earth. It was launching baby broodmasters onto the planet surface, molting them into adults, spawning broodlings, seizing control of human military units and leaders, and so forth. It was quite detailed. It was a two-player game – one as the broodmaster, the other as the human resistance. I don’t know how long the dream went on – time & dreams are hard to reconcile, and I have absolutely fallen asleep, had a long involved dream, awakened and seen that it was only 20 minutes later. Go figure.

Anyway after I woke up, I realized that all the core systems for a Brood vs. Humanity game had been designed by my sleeping mind. It was like a free game design. I didn’t do much about it till September, when I finally felt impelled to actually create this game, which I then named Invasion of the Brood.

So I started. I had a working prototype by October, which I playtested, and even took to Europe to conventions. It was a fun fast game and of course highly asymmetrical – the two sides don’t even have the same turn sequence. Response by my testers was super-positive, and now at last it is being released – about 10 months after I finished all testing and writing. But my team had other projects to work on, so Invasion of the Brood was on a back burner for a while.

But now at least it appears – my dream game, literally. This has never happened to me at any other time. Yes I have dreams about game design, but usually these dreams are along the lines of putting together a single game map; creating a monster; going to a playtest only to realize I’m not wearing pants; or finding out that my game prototype closet is full of huge spiders (I hate that one).

This is the only dream I can remember in which I designed a whole project from start almost to finish while I slept, so naturally I think it’s a pretty unusual origin story for a game. Let me know what you think, on the various Petersen Games social media sites.

– Sandy P.

Tips for Successfully Publishing a Game

Tips for Successfully Publishing a Game

A Publishers Interview with George Mylonas at Finders Grove. George wanted to get some advice from someone who knows the ins and outs of board games and tabletop RPGs to help guide him through developing a licensed game project. Here are the results! His website is FindersGrove.com

Can you give some advice on specific manufacturers for plastic mini figurines, boards and paper booklets? I know there are good deals overseas, but it’s hard to find one when you don’t speak the language and have little experience with physical production. Any leads on where to find these manufacturers and how to contact them would be majorly helpful. 

There are dozens of such manufacturers, and they are actually really, really easy to find. In fact, they are eager to contact you and my team has to fend off new requests from them every week. They always have someone who speaks excellent English.

One easy way to find them is to grab a game off your shelf that you think was well-made, and look for the Chinese manufacturer’s name on it. Then look them up on Google. Many of them have the city names of Ningbo or Guangzhou in their company name, but not all. They are primarily located in Guangdong province. I will say that it is possible to get a bad manufacturer – you will want to get one that has a track record. 

As for a kickstarter, were there any news outlets or influencers or social media marketing that significantly helped get the word out?

For my first kickstarters I did not use social marketing much, depending on my own well-known reputation to get the word around. I now pay a social media company to assist with this, but frankly I doubt their services would be useful to a newcomer.

The main sites you want to use are BoardGameGeek and Kickstarter itself. If you have a couple grand of cash laying around, you might want to consider paying for a banner ad on BoardGameGeek. Kickstarter itself will help a lot with its reach. I’d suggest frequent Kickstarter updates on your project, and both How-To-Play and playthrough videos.

Also, a couple of reviews would be good if you can get them. Most reviewers won’t review a game before it comes out, so you may have to do a “Player Feedback” video instead – have people play the game at a local game store or convention or your house if need be, then film their reactions to the game. (Obviously, edit out negative reactions if you have any)

Any general business tips and Kickstarter campaign advice?

Here are the most important four things I’ve learned from launching my games on Kickstarter. 

1) Shipping is a huge, huge part of your costs. You can easily lose ALL your profit by not charging shipping correctly. Do not forget to charge VAT for Europeans – they’ll bitch and moan about it, but if you eat those costs, that is literally all your profit, meaning you are making zero money on shipping to Europe. You also have to charge sales tax separately for every state in the USA. It’s a massive, massive pain and you may want to contact a fulfilment company to help you run the campaign. I can recommend https://gamerati.biz/ but there are others. If you do decide to go with Gamerati, tell Ed I sent you. 

2) Your game should be as complete and polished as possible before the campaign starts. In the old days, this wasn’t necessary. Now it is. 

3) Be as communicative as possible with your backers. Show up in the Comments. Blast updates. 

4) if your project fails, regard this as a gift from God. You now know that this game idea would not have been a success. Don’t complain about it and try to rework it so it’ll succeed. You’ve just been told it’s not working and now you don’t have to lose tens of thousands of dollars trying to make it work. I have had many, many failed kickstarter campaigns and I am grateful for each one. One time I really believed in the project, so I decided to rework the campaign and relaunched. I then (barely) funded –  I have ever since regretted doing it since that project did not have any momentum in the market either and I was stuck with thousands of copies taking up space in my warehouse (for which I paid) which took years to sell. Argh. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s good to know that the project is going to fail ahead of time – this is what Kickstarter tells you! 

Unusual Elements in Yig Snake Grandaddy

Unusual Elements in Yig Snake Grandaddy

Yig Snake Granddaddy is Petersen Games’ new roleplaying campaign for 5e, based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu universe as found in Sandy Petersens Cthulhu Mythos. It brings players from Level 1 up to Level 14-20 over the course of several months of play. It comes in four acts, each 60-90 pages long, which combine into a single epic campaign, from the minds of Sandy Petersen and Matt Corley. This campaign is unusual for two reasons.

First, it features time travel, in that ancient creatures – clear back to the dinosaurs – are being brought to the present day to take over the world. This gives gamemasters a chance to feature extinct species and creatures. For example, dinosaurs and pterodactyls play a role in the campaign. Ancient now-vanished Lovecraftian beings, such as serpent men, elder things, and Yithians also make their appearance, and are fierce opponents, to say the least.

These beings are often less-used in Lovecraftian campaigns, because they’re hard to fit into the game world – Yithians should be controlling a world-spanning empire, not lurking in a dungeon, for instance. But this time-travel feature gives us an excuse to feature them. Spoiler – the Yithians do immediately take steps to establish that world-spanning empire!

Second, almost all the opponents are super-intelligent beings. The “stupidest” are the Serpent Men, who have an average INT of 18! The Elder Things and Yithians have average INTS of 23, and many are higher.

This leads to a problem for most gamemasters – how do you portray enemies who are smarter than humans? Smarter than the players, and for that matter, the gamemaster himself?! Well, the rules contain advice on how to do this very thing, and a summary of it is listed here, because it is useful in other situations and games.

Here are some tricks that I’ve used to play super-intelligent opponents.

  1. They almost always know when the PCs are approaching, because they’ve predicted it.
  2. They can instantly identify any equipment, gear, and magic items the PCs have visible. Even if they’ve never seen the item before, they can correctly work out what it does from its appearance. Remember: super-intelligent.
  3. As the gamemaster, listen to the players while they discuss possibilities of action. Then assume that the enemies have taken those player options into consideration.
  4. If the players pull off a coup of some sort, surprising you, you have two options. First, you can let it succeed. After all, wolves and even insects can sometimes surprise humans. Or if you feel your super-enemies would have figured this out, give them a contingency plan. Just pull it out of your butt – there is an escape pod, or a teleporting dinosaur, whatever. Don’t over use this though.
  5. If the enemy is defeated, figure out a way that they can work that defeat into their evil plan. You may not see how at first, but you might be able to figure out something by next week’s game night.
  6. Such enemies should rarely or never fall for an ambush.

Don’t despair – it’s okay if the PCs pull off victories. You’re not trying to “beat” the players. You just want their victory to feel like they beat entities who were smarter than they. This will give them a real feeling of accomplishment and make your game night a fun one.

About Sandy Petersen

Sandy got his start in the game industry at Chaosium in 1980, working on tabletop roleplaying games. His best-known work from that time is the cult game Call of Cthulhu, which has been translated into many languages and is still played worldwide.

He also worked on many other published projects, such as Runequest, Stormbringer, Elfquest and even the Ghostbusters RPG, and was instrumental in the creation of dozens of scenario packs and expansions. He also acted as developer on the original Arkham Horror board game.

In 2013 he founded Petersen Games which has released a series of highly successful boardgame projects, including The Gods War, Evil High Priest, and the much-admired Cthulhu Wars. His games have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, and he has received dozens of awards from the game industry.

DESIGN CORNER: New Lord

DESIGN CORNER: New Lord

The Return to Planet Apocalypse Kickstarter will have some great new expansions for our much-praised board game while the RPG supplement will show you how to turn any fantasy world into a post-apocalyptic landscape where the heroes fight alongside surviving remnants to merely stymie the fiendish hordes.
Each week we are releasing a Design Corner from Sandy that gives you a sneak peek of art from these new projects.

 

 

Herne the Hunter

Herne is the Wild Hunter of Celtic and German myth. In the stories he flies through the sky or over the ground with his pack of demon hounds. His menace is prodigious — if the Hellhound is not in play, place it in Herne’s area!

He has Pack tokens and starts with tokens equal to the heroes. If his Pack drops below 3, he adds more in his Menace, up to a maximum of 6. If he has run out of Pack tokens, he places Fiends instead, so no matter what he has a sizable contingent accompanying him.

His Toughness is equal to 3 +1 per Pack.

So in a 5 player game, he’d start with a Toughness 8 which is pretty much unthinkably horrible. In addition, each Pack adds 1d12 to his attack (base 6d8). A Lord with Toughness 8 and 6d8+5d12 attack is lethal. Fortunately you can kill the Pack independently of Herne. Each Pack only has Toughness 1+1 and gives the killer 1 Courage.

While Herne also inflicts 1 damage on the hero with the highest Health when he attacks, his main threat is the Pack, so early on during the fight you are forced to kill his hounds, and only later do you target him directly. Of course you may also need to deal with a Hellhound and some Fiends.